Elise's Reviews > Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality

Unclean by Richard Beck
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Jul 25, 11

bookshelves: non-fiction, philosophy, religion
Read in July, 2011

I finished a book! Yay! First one since the twins were born.

Unclean by Richard Beck, to me, was a psychological analysis of why we are so prone to being elite, exclusive, and inhospitable to “others.” Beck gives an academic analysis of “disgust,” a human emotion that at its heart, is meant to protect us from ingesting substances that could be physically harmful. Society conditions us, however, to feel disgust and a variety of things and people that are actually not disgusting (in the sense of harming us physically). To make a long story short, some of these things and people that certain societies teach as disgusting (poor hygiene, certain “moral” offenses, homosexuality, body issues such as gore or deformity) keep us from being hospitable to groups of people (i.e. excluding them) rather than taking care of them (which, ironically, would be the Christ-like thing for Christian Americans to do, but Christian Americans tend to be most vulnerable to this type of hostility).

Just as we would spit out (“expel”) a disgusting substance in our mouths that could physically harm us, we tend to exclude (“expel”) groups of people we label as “disgusting” from the circle of people we deem worthy of our love and hospitality.

Rather than giving in to elitist thinking and excluding groups of people, Beck argues that “Hospitality is about selfhood. It is that space where the dignity of every human person is vouchsafed, embraced, and protected…” implying that the people that we are taught by society that it is ok to avoid, or ok to withhold help from, should actually be given a status of dignity.

The opposite of a “disgusting” substance or person is a “pure” substance or person. Religions (including general American Christianity) place a lot of emphasis on “purity”. In Unclean, Beck argues that the “…flight into purity is often a flight from need into self-sufficiency. And this flight into purity and self-sufficiency has catastrophic effects upon human compassion and empathy…”

Disgust is often linked to people and substances we relate to our animality (sex or other physical acts that remind us our bodies are the same as animal’s bodies), death or to impurity. (For example, for Christians that believe homosexuality is a sin, why are gay couples called impure or disgusting, but someone that is prideful is not called impure or disgusting, even though pride specifically called out by Jesus a sin and homosexuality is not? Beck’s psychology behind this suggests that Christians view sexual sins as “impure” because they remind us we really are physically animals, while pride does not act as such a reminder.)

The heart of the book for me is a call back to hospitality – i.e. community, taking care of each other, being kind and considering others needs, etc – on page 175:

“The repression of death and need is particularly acute in America and other modern, technologically advanced nations. The reason for this is that our material wealth and technological success obscure our need and vulnerability. Never suffering want or poverty, and trusting in modern medicine, Americans can live (and pretend) as if they were immortal. This creates a cultural worldview that is characterized by what Ernest Becker has called “the denial of death,” the refusal to admit the reality of death into our lives and consciousness. Arthur C. McGill gives another cogent analysis of this…[noting] that “Americans like to appear as if they give death hardly any thought at all.” The American ethic is, thus, “for people to create a living world where death seems abnormal and accidental. [Americans] must create a living world where life is so full, so secure, and so rich with possibilities that it gives no hint of death and deprivation.”

What we see in this death repression is a collective and cultural denial of our own vulnerability and need. The American duty, according to McGill, is to be “fine,” to take up “the duty to look well, to seem fine, to exclude from the fabric of [our] normal life any evidence of decay and death and helplessness.” This social pressure to be “fine,” to hide from others our vulnerability and failure, is the dark and pathological side of the American success ethos. It is the drive to become so materially successful as to eliminate all trace of need. It is the quest, as noted above, to be god-like: separate, autonomous, self-contained, and without need.”

The other, shorter, message that really hit me was this:

“True love moves me into need”

True hospitality and charity is not giving to others only when we have excess material things, excess emotional strength, excess time – caring for others out of true love for humanity requires us to give to a point of being in need. Not only when we have “extra,” because there is always someone who has less than us (money, time, emotional and mental health, physical strength) and so there is always someone we can help no matter what our means.
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